Michael Tang thought his 8-year-old's mile-long walk would fix homework problems, but the lesson has turned out to be much bigger than that.
Parenting is hard at the best of the times, but it’s especially tough when it is treated like a spectator sport by nosy neighbors and over-enthusiastic police. A California father named Mike Tang is the latest victim of society’s unfortunate obsession with judging parents harshly for decisions we might not make ourselves.
Tang, a chemist who was feeling frustrated with his 8-year-old son for cheating on homework, decided to teach him an important life lesson – that money is hard to earn and slacking off at school could mean not having a home someday. Tang dropped Isaac off in a parking lot one mile from home and told him to walk the rest of the way. It was 7:45 p.m. in Corona, a city near Los Angeles, and the sun had barely set. Isaac knew the route home and was familiar with using pedestrian crossings.
When Tang sent his father to get Isaac after 15 minutes, the child had already been picked up by the police, alerted by someone who thought he was in danger because he was alone. Tang was arrested and spent the night in jail; but the punishment did not end there. Reason reports:
“A jury later convicted him of child endangerment, and the judge sentenced him to parenting classes and a 56-day work release program picking up trash and doing other menial work.”
Tang has refused to serve the sentence, and when presented with the outstanding arrest warrant for his failure to comply, scribbled the following response in blue marker over top:
“F*^k you all! Walking on a public sidewalk at 7:34 pm is not child endangerment. You are the ones violating my rights and rigged my trial by suppressing my evidence. I will doing everything in my power to defy you.”
Whether we, as individuals, agree with Tang’s disciplinary approach or not, it is ridiculous to believe that Isaac that was in actual danger. As Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids points out in a five-minute video about this case, some might call the situation unusual or controversial, but it’s certainly not dangerous. Corona has a low crime rate and Isaac knew his way home.
The problem is the moralizing that goes along with authorities’ assessments of other people’s parenting tactics. A fascinating study from the University of California last year found that people’s estimates of the danger in which children are placed vary tremendously based on their opinion of a parent’s behavior, i.e. if a mother’s absence is intentional or ‘immoral,’ a child is perceived to be at greater risk than if her absence is accidental. (I wrote about this on TreeHugger last fall.)
Clearly this had an effect on the outcome of Tang’s trial. Court transcripts cite the arresting officer saying he wouldn’t let his 20-year-old daughter walk home alone. This says it all about his approach to parenting – a true helicopter dad whose adult daughter presumably has fewer real-world skills that 8-year-old Isaac already does.
And what if the officer’s fears are logical? Then we have a much bigger problem on hand, and every parent should be outraged, defending our children’s rights to be pedestrians at reasonable hours of the evening.
Tang has received an outpouring of support from people who have learned about the story, mostly through the video below and Skenazy’s blog. He continues refusing to pay the fine and hire a lawyer, which he says would be “no victory for parents.” In response to the many people asking how he would feel if something had happened to his kid, he wrote:
“I’d be just as sorry and remorseful as if I drove him somewhere and got in a car accident, or if I dropped him off at school and he was injured at a school shooting. But that certainly doesn’t make driving him in a car or dropping him off at school dangerous or illegal.”
Skenazy agrees with Tang’s last point: “Simply because some rare and unpredictable tragedy COULD happen literally anytime, any place, that doesn’t mean a parent is wrong to trust the overwhelming odds that everything will be okay.”
We need to start talking about the dangers of not leaving kids alone, of hovering constantly, of inhibiting the development of independence within reasonable limits, of potentially stunting the growth of resilience and what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” confidence in one’s ability to handle situations as they arise.
It will be interesting to see how this ends, but it is clear Tang has no plans to go quietly.